ACJS TODAY, January/February 2002

by Chad Nilson and Tod Burke
Radford University

In the United States, between 1980 and 1999, eco-terrorists committed at least 100 acts of destruction, causing approximately $42.8 million in damages.  In western states alone, between 1995 and 1999, eco-terrorists committed acts totaling $28.8 million in damages (Denson and Long, 1999).  Eco-terrorist acts, although varying in both degree of risk to human life and total damages, all significantly impact human use of natural resources.

On December 31, 1999, Michigan State University's agriculture building was set ablaze causing $1 million in damage. Three weeks later, members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) took credit for the blaze claiming that, "ELF struck back at one of the many threats to the natural world" (Miller, 2000, p. 1).  On July 17, 1997, in Olympia, Washington, an Earth First! er (exclamation mark mandatory) protesting the cutting of timber along a roadway, cut hydraulic hoses and threw cement blocks into the blades of a tree cutting machine, causing $380,000 in damage ("Environmentalists Arrested," no date).  On July 21, 1997, the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the arson of a slaughter plant in Redmond, Oregon, causing $1 million in damages (Woolf, 2001).

Considering these events, this article explores the behavior of eco-terrorists, examines current and past literature and research on the subject of eco-terrorism, proposes an operational definition of eco-terrorism, and discusses certain prevention strategies that potential victims may employ to protect themselves from such attacks.  It is the aim of this article to encourage further scholarly and practitioner analysis of eco-terrorism, urge others to build from the foundation provided in this literature, and stress the importance of the continued professional development of policies, procedures, tactics, and prevention strategies that may be used to alleviate, or at least curb, the plague of eco-terrorism which currently threatens environmentally-involved research and production.

Defining the Behavior

The prefix eco, short for ecology, concerns the relationships between an organism and its environment, which is the ultimate concern of environmentalists.  Ecological-terrorism is used as a tactic to stop companies, institutions, organizations, and governments from damaging or altering the environment.

Some writers (Lacayo, 200 1, p. 92) refer to eco-terrorism as attacks against a nation's agriculture.  Others refer to eco-terrorism as acting in ways that destroy the environment of a nation, such as deliberate oil spilling in Kuwait (Walker, 1991).  In contrast, others have focused on terrorist acts committed based on the concept of deep ecology, which according to Eagan (1996), has a core tenet of  biocentrism: "a belief that human beings are just an ordinary member of the biological community, no more important than, say, a bear or a whale" (p. 3).  Providing a counter to the evasive attempts of defining eco-terrorism, and acknowledging the actual behavior of eco-terrorists, the authors of this article define eco-ter-rorism as any direct or indirect use of force, willful damage, or violence against persons, groups, or property that is used to terminate, prevent, or minimize human alteration to any part of the natural environment or its animal species.

The eco-terrorist movement, developed primarily in the 1980s, involves members of a predominately middle-class background who are in deliberate contrast to the mainstream ecological and animal protection groups which, according to eco-terrorists, have not achieved any radical change in the protection of the environment (Laqueur, 1999).  Eco-terrorist as described in the previous section, involves acts of violence or destruction intended to curb human alteration to the environment or animal species.  These acts tend to target forestation projects, recreational use of wilderness, hydro-electric operations, land-based telecommunication and energy services, animal research laboratories, resource production, and agricultural developments.  Eco-terrorist acts may occur in various forms.  Some of these acts include equipment vandalisi4 blockades to business or work sites, package bombs or pipe bombs sent to institutional administrators, liberation of animals, destruction of research data, invasions of governmental or business offices to commit crimes of civil disobedience, arson of buildings, obliteration of experimental plants and animals, etc.

Eco-terrorists commit these as well, and many other criminal acts, in their fight to save nature.  By taking claim for these acts, ecoterrorists acquire public attention and use that interest to spread their extreme environmentalist ideologies that demand the nfinimization of human alteration to the natural environment.
Eco-Terrorist Groups

Individuals involved in eco-terrorism essentially commit criminal acts to both spread their ideologies of environmental extremism and to terminate, prevent, or minimize group, business, or institutional alteration to the natural environment or its animal species.  Like other deviant persons outside of the norm, eco-terrorists seek approval for their actions within a group or organization of others who share similar interests, ideologies, and ambitions to save the environment.  Discussing terrorists in general, White (2002) suggests that the terrorist group basically becomes the primary source of social reality for individual terrorists.  The recognition and reinforcement of its members enables a terrorist group to reshape member identities and provide social acceptance.

Several environmentalist groups engage in eco-terrorism and are of interest to criminal justice agencies.  This research focuses on five well-known international environmentalist groups that do not all advocate eco-terrorism, but may (by misfortune) have overlapping group membership with those who do advocate and engage in eco-terrorist behavior.  Some environmentalist groups, such as Greenpeace, strongly disapprove of eco-terrorist behavior, while others such as the Earth Liberation Front, fully endorse and engage in such behavior.

Perhaps the first group to engage in the direct action of environmental preservation was Greenpeace.  Known as an interest group lobbying for pro-environmental policies, Greenpeace, in the past, has engaged in some acts of civil disobedience to protect whales and other wildlife.  Greenpeace is not known for its direct involvement in eco-terrorist behavior, although it is an important foundation from which other environmentalist groups originated and have become involved in acts of eco-terrorism.

One of these groups is the Sea Shepard Conservation Society.  Discontent with a non-destruction policy adopted by Greenpeace, several members of Greenpeace left the organization and created the Sea Shepard Conservation Society.  The Sea Shepard Conservation Society, advocating the use of methods of destruction to inform the public of oceanic environmental issues, has engaged in several serious acts of eco-terrorism.  According to Eagan (1996), since its inception, "the Sea Shepherds have sunk eight whaling ships and a drift netter, rammed nearly a dozen other vessels, and blockaded the Canadian sealing fleet" (p. 5).

Other group activities of eco-terrorism involve Earth First!.  Earth First! originated with the avowed purpose of raising the level Of conflict between the mainstream environmental movement, and its counter-movement, Wise Use, which supports the use of natural resources to further production, recreation, research, and education (Ingalsbee, 1996).  Established by Dave Foreman on April 4, 1980, 'Earth First! was developed to take an uncompromising militant stand in defense of the environment and to engage in direct action ranging from civil disobedience to terrorist attacks (Eagan, 1996).  Its founders, inspired by Edward Abbey's (1972) fictional book, The Monkeywrench Gang, claim an espoused mission of ensuring the preservation and expansion of wilderness areas and to protect the plants and animals in those areas.

A preferred method of eco-terrorism used by Earth First!ers is monkeywrenching-sabotaging logging equipment by inserting spikes into trees to damage saws, or pouring foreign substances in the fuel tanks of logging equipment.  The Earth First!ers credo, "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!"(Elsbach and Sutton, 1992, p. 5), bodes well for the assignment of Earth First! as an eco-terrorist group that institutes property destruction and violence to save nature and spread their extreme environmentalist ideology.  Furthermore, Earth First! is seen as an eco-terrorist group on account of the three parts of its theme identified by founder Dave Foreman: "ecological wilderness, civil disobedience, and monkeywrenching"(Parfit, 1990, p. 9).

Other environmentalist groups that use eco-terrorist strategies include the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).  The ALF, classified by the FBI as a terrorist group in 1987, is a militant, underground group dedicated to the liberation of all animals from exploitation by humans (Laqueur, 1999).  According to one study (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1993), the objectives of ALF are to "save animals from suffering here and now ... to inflict economic loss on people who exploit animals, resulting in less profit for them to plough back into their animal exploitation business ... and to escalate events to a point where all of these industries are under threat and cannot operate" (p. 4).  The ALF, most active in the United Kingdom, aggressively exercises economic sabotage by victimizing a wide array of animal-exploiting enterprises causing millions of pounds in damages.  According to Laqueur (I 999), in 1995, the ALF was responsible for 80 violent incidents per month in the United Kingdom, and 313 cases of violent incidents over several years in the United States.  To illustrate, on March 11, 1997, members of the ALF firebombed offices and pipe-bombed five feed trucks belonging to the Utah Fur Breeders Agricultural Cooperative.  Damages were estimated at $1 million (Rhodes, 1998).

The Earth Liberation Front, a derivative of Earth First!, is a radical environmental activist group that endorses front-line direct action in protecting the environment.  The ELF is an underground militant organization which operates as a leaderless entity composed of small groups of closely-connected colleagues with immense trust in one another (Rhodes, 1998).  The FBI considers the ELF as one of the country's leading domestic terrorist organizations as it has been linked to, and has also claimed to have been responsible for, arson attacks against commercial entities causing millions of dollars in damages ("Radical Group Suspected in Arson," 2001).

Much like Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front employs economic sabotage against individuals, businesses, or institutions involved in the alteration of the natural environment, and claims responsibility for such acts to raise public awareness of the necessity of environmental protection and to prevent further damage or alteration to the environment.  Perhaps the most notable eco-terrorist attack committed by the ELF was their attack on the Vail Mountain Ski Resort in Vail, Colorado.

On October 18, 1998, the Earth Liberation Front set fire to three buildings and four chair lifts in the ski resort, causing damages that totaled $12 million.  The ELF admitted to starting the fires on behalf of the lynx, which to environmentalists was perceived as being in grave danger of again losing their natural habitat to expansion by the Vail Mountain Ski Resort.  Following this act of eco-terrorism, the ELF facsimiled a letter to the ski resort cautioning skiers to ski elsewhere, for the torching of the resort's buildings was only a warning (Cloud, 1998).  Interestingly, only a month before the incident, the Vail Mountain Ski Resort won a court battle against environmentalist groups who claimed the resort expansion project would interfere with the reintroduction of the lynx to the region ("Fires on Vail...," 1998).

The motivations for committing such acts in the fight to save nature are very unique in that they can drive educated, upper-middle class citizens to commit acts of eco-terrorism regardless of concern for their own liberty.  What makes the crime of eco-terrorism so interesting, and at the same time puzzling to criminal justice professionals, are the characteristics of eco-terrorists.

Motivational  Analysis & Behavioral Explanations

Eco-terrorist behavior, like other fon-ns of terrorism, results from strong emotion, belief, and the desire to act upon feelings of irateness and resentment towards those who differ in position on a critical issue.  In the case of eco-terrorism, this difference is with those who alter the environment.

Eco-terrorists are aadifficult group of criminals to profile.  According to Laqueur (in White, 2002), it is impossible to profile terrorist personalities in that perfectly normal, mentally healthy, educated, and established individuals have opted to engage in terrorist behavior.

Most explanations and analyses of ecoterrorist behavior have focused on environmental extremist groups and the relationships between the members in that group.  Reviewing significant findings in the research of terrorist group behavior, White (2002) reports that terrorist behavior differs from standard patterns of criminal behavior because terrorists are highly motivated and loyal to a particular cause.  More so, terrorists are focused on a specific target of symbolic value, whereas most criminal behavior is opportunistic.  White adds that the terrorist group becomes the primary source of reality for individual terrorists by offering recognition, reinforcement, and social acceptance.

This explanation of group solidarity prefaces Cooper's 1977 analysis of terrorist groups through the doctrine of necessary violence.  Under this theory, once a group is fon-ned, and ideologies are entrenched, terrorists feel that violence is the only altemative for correcting injustices of society (White, 2002).  As for eco-terrorism, in the eyes of these extremists, past attempts by mainstream environmentalist groups to lobby and use political strategy to protect the environment have failed, and so violent uses of force are acceptable methods to meet their demands for environmental preservation.

It is this justification that leads to acts of eco-terrorism, and group-developedjustification, that perpetuates this behavior.  When terrorist groups form, a collaboration of ideas ensues, and the absence of controversy on a particular issue allows for the justification of eco-terrorist behavior to occur.  To illustrate, Andy Savage, a British advocate for Earth First!, justifies eco-terrorist behavior by comparing Earth First! actions to those actions of companies involved in environmental alteration.  He states, "When we force our way into the offices of a company responsible for the violent and forcible relocation of a forest, we are accused of being violent if we break a lock to get in ... yet the annihilation of a whole ecosystem is called progress and development" (in Chadwick, 2000, p. 3).

Not only do eco-terrorist groups justify their actions, but they also seek to legitimize their organization through illegitimate actions.  Studying radical social movements and organizations that use publicity derived by illegitimate actions to obtain endorsement and support from certain populations, Elsbach and Sutton (1992) have developed a model to explain how illegitimate organizational actions, such as eco-terrorist behavior, can legitimize the organization as a whole.

Elsbach and Sutton (1992) found that illegitimate behavior could do one of two things for an organization.  On the one hand, culturally illegitimate activities may provoke negative comments, attacks, and resentment that may drive away members andjeopardize outside support.  On the other hand, the resulting publicity from the illegitimate action can boost an organization's reputation within the very narrow segments of society that endorse such controversial behavior, and can also indirectly lead the organization to acquire legitimacy from broader segments of society that support the goals of that organization, which are acceptable.  Elsbach and Sutton (1992) propose a five-step model that explains how illegitimate actions can lead to organizational legitimacy.

The first step involves an illegitimate action conunitted to generate media attention.  The second step, decoupling, occurs when there is a separation of legitimate group structures from illegitimate group actions.  In the third step, institutional conformity and decoupling allows for further innocence and justifications.  During the fourth step, the defenses of innocence andjustifications shift attention towards the legitimate aspects of the act and its cause.  Finally, organizational legitimacy is obtained by the group's ability to attain credibility as being rational (Elsbach and Sutton, 1992, pp. 11 - 13).

Elsbach and Sutton's model offers valuable insight on the behavior of eco-terrorist groups, and stresses how important illegitimate acts are to these groups, in not only their attempts to prevent future or current environmental alteration, but also in their struggles to gain legitimacy and spread environmentalist ideology to the broader segments of society.  Although this model accurately describes the use of illegitimate activities to gain organizational legitimacy, it tends to amalgamate institutional and management theories that really offer little explanation for the engagement of individuals involved in eco-terrorism.

As for explaining individual motivation to conunit acts of eco-terrorism, traditional sociological theories developed by both Durkheim (1951) and Merton (1968) have laid a foundation for the development of criminological explanations of eco-terrorism.  Durkheim's breakdown of the mechanical solidarity within a society, which eventually transforms to a normlessness society of organic solidarity (anomie), and Merton's explanation of certain individuals reaching legitimate goals through illegitimate means (innovation), initially allow for a rather broad criminological view on eco-terrorism.  Nonetheless, they are both fundamentally accurate descriptions of causation for eco-terrorism in that they both can be used to accurately describe an individual's plight to save nature and his or her decision to employ unlawful acts upon others to fulfill that plight.

Following Durkheim's theory, the environmental extremist believes that industrial society has lost sight of the supremacy of the environment, and as Laqueur (1999) explains, "it is no longer a matter of preserving nature so far unspoiled; civilization has to be rolled back or even destroyed" (p. 201).  Under Merton's theory, acceptable ways to attain the desired goals, such as protecting the environment through lobbying government and civil demonstration, have failed.  In response, innovative and illegitimate means of reaching the goal of environmental preservation must be employed.

Combating Eco-Terrorism

Eco-terrorist behavior is a difficult and perplexing crime to prevent, combat, and prosecute.  Various strategies have been employed to counter such behavior, but their effect on eco-terrorism has been minimal.  Many attempts by government and anti-eco-terrorist lobbyists to combat eco-terrorism have been focused on throwing full support behind harsher punishments for eco-terrorist behavior, and to extend protections of legislation against terrorism to potential victims of eco-terrorism.

To illustrate, in 1992, Congress enacted into law the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, codified as 18 U.S.C. §43.  This made it a federal offense, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment for up to one year, to cause physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise resulting in economic damage exceeding $10,000.  The Act also imposes sentences of up to 10 years or life imprisonment for persons causing serious bodily harm or death to another person during the course of such actions.  By enacting the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, Congress sought both to punish those who engage in acts of terrorism against animal enterprises and to deter others from doing the same (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1993).

The criticism of relying solely on legislation as a tactic in combating eco-terrorism is that it relies on classical deterrence theory, implying that the implementation of harsh and swift punishment should curve or minimize eco-terrorist behavior.  The difficulty with such an approach is that dedicated advocates of the environmental-extremist movement, particularly eco-terrorists, fully endorse acts of destruction, even if such acts are in violation of law.  Furthermore, they are fully aware of the possibility of losing their liberty as a consequence of such behavior, but nonetheless choose to engage in acts of eco-terrorism because they see such behavior as the only alternative in effectively protecting the environment.

It is not the intention of this article to refute legislation, nor chastise the extension of legislative protections to potential ecoterrorist targets, but rather to suggest that legislative deterrence should not be the exclusive tool used to combat eco-terrorism.  Instead, a combination of tools or components within a universal model should be employed.

A more universal approach to combat eco-terrorism includes the use of legislation to reflect governmental and public rejection of eco-terrorist behavior and to deter aspiring environmental extremists not yet a pari of the eco-terrorist movement.  This approach endorses the continued use of specialized task forces.  It is important to note that when using specialized task forces, case success may be minimal.  For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, prompted by the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, created task forces throughout the United States to examine and develop methods to combat domestic terrorism.  As of 1999, of the 100 major cases of domestic terrorism, less than 20 had been solved (Denson and Long, 1999).  There are several possible reasons for minimal success in terrorist investigations: many terrorists are familiar with police procedures by way of strategy; post-secondary education is common; many give careful planning and dedication to such acts; and many are often difficult to apprehend.  Despite these findings, with improved technological and information resources, specialized task forces have a vital role in combating eco-terrorism.

Another component of the universal approach is the proactive involvement of law enforcement.  Law enforcement agencies have the primary responsibility of protecting the public, whether it is at environmentalist demonstrations, protests of human alteration to the environment, or responding to eco-terrorist attacks.  While attending such events, simple intelligence should be gathered and shared with other agencies in a collaborative network.  This may lead to valuable information that may aid eco-terrorist investigations and/or even help predict future strikes of eco-terrorism.

The final component involves the potential targets of eco-terrorism, and in general any group, institution, or business advocating the wise use of natural resources.  Potential targets of eco-terrorism, whether identified in cooperation with local law enforcement services, or self-identified by members within that organization, can use methods of environmentalism to curb public and environmentalist opinion of the organization's involvement in the environment.

To illustrate, House Representative Mark Udall (D-Colorado) honored Aspen Skiing Company for its important environmental achievements within its business operation.  The Aspen Skiing Company took a number of measures that in the long run should help the environmental quality of the surrounding area.  Environmental stewardship was evident in every operation of the ski company, from purchasing wind powered equipment, recycling demolished building material, water saving, energy efficiency, to even developing ski runs specifically designed to reduce erosion and limit tree cutting.  Awarded the Golden Eagle Award for Overall Ski Area Operation, which recognizes positive environmental efforts of ski companies, Aspen Skiing Company went so far as to develop an Environmental Affairs Department within its organization (Udall, 2001).  The development of environmental awareness within the Aspen Skiing Company, whether intended or not, lessens the degree of environmental ignorance assigned to the ski company by not only environmentalists, but also the public.

Such measures, although not directly capable of countering eco-terrorist attacks, may help in preventing attacks of eco-terrorism.  Simply by acknowledging the requests of local area environmentalists, potential targets may lessen their perceived threat to the environment and continue their wise use of natural resources without the violent interruption of an eco-terrorist attack.

Summarizing this model, it is important for legislative bodies to acknowledge eco-terrorism, allow for sufficient policy and resources to be used in the counter-attack on eco-terrorism, and continue their involvement in the legal protection of potential eco-terrorist targets.  As for special task forces and law enforcement agencies, networking is a key, in that most eco-terrorists travel great distances to employ a dangerous assault that is coordinated, fully planned, and flexible.  Finally, it is crucial for law enforcement to work not only with victimized groups or businesses, but also potential targets of eco-terrorism.  This relationship, and the environmentally compatible initiatives adopted by potential eco-terrorist targets, can significantly minimize the occurrence of eco-terrorist attacks.


It is the aim of this article to develop a foundation from which researchers, administrators, law enforcement practitioners, and business corporations can develop further strategies useful in the counter-movement of eco-terrorism.  Necessary in further understanding eco-terrorist behavior, is psycho-socio-criminological development, perhaps in the areas of group think and emotional motivation, that may offer insight into predicting such behavior, while also creating possible leads of innovation in preventative strategies.  This article not only provides a foundation for such studies to be built, but offers direction in understanding the causational factors of eco-terrorist behavior and the consequences it has on society.


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